Growing up, your parents might have told you to stop playing video games and study for school. How could they have possibly known that one day, your encyclopedic knowledge of video games might actually be worth credit at the university level?
For the past couple years, David Annandale from the department of English, film, and theatre, has offered Special Topics in Film 1: Video Games and Theory.
“What I want to be able to do with the course is to look at video games as an art form, and consider how we have to look at this art form,” explains Annandale, “because we can’t look at it the same way we look at literature or film or theatre.”
“It’s another new medium, another way of telling stories, and that demands new theories for looking at this. We can derive some aspects from other forms, but, ultimately, we need a new way of looking at a new art.”
The creation of a new artistic medium necessitates discussion amongst theorists to devise a language with which we can interpret new meanings. Two major schools of thought emerged, situated at opposite sides of the spectrum.
There were those who looked to study video games as interactive films, with focus placed on the narrative elements of the game (narratology). In stark contrast, a growing number of theorists argued that video games ought to be studied first and foremost as games (ludology).
In the first issue of Computer Games Studies, an international journal of computer game research first published in 2001, editor-in-chief Espen Aarseth eloquently states that video game study requires a different set of guiding principles because video games are “radically different to narratives as a cognitive and communicative structure.”
As Annandale states, “the ludology movement is where really begins.”
“Before that, we really do have a lot of attempts to import theories from other narrative forms, and games are looked at primarily from a narrative perspective. It’s with [theorists like] Gonzalo Frasca, when the term ludology comes into being. There’s a concerted attempt to say, ‘No, we can’t look at these things using the same theories. These are new things.’”
As unique as video games are, Annandale is also quick to point to the similar development of the video game industry in relation to the rise of the movie industry at the turn of the 20th century.
“We are still in the early decades of the form. I’d like to think that we are approximately, with games, where movies were in the late 20s. The medium has been around for around 30 or 40 years, and the maturation process is still underway, both in the art and in the way of looking at it.”
The course itself explores the competing theories related to studying video games, and requires students to spend class time both playing games and critically discussing the different topics and issues facing the industry.
“I think we’re at an interesting point in the development of games, as far as that goes, and it will be really interesting to see what happens next,” says Annandale. “‘How much more realistic can they get?’ is the question that we are now asking ourselves. How much more realistic do we want them to get?”
“It sometimes feels to me—and it’s always hard to tell when you’re living through the moment—but one has the sense that the industry is trying to figure out what to do next. What are we going to do other than better graphics? We’re in that exploratory process now.”
Prospective students looking to enroll will have to keep a keen eye out each year when registering for class, as the course is not yet a regular film studies offering just yet, but rather a special topics class that is offered periodically.